Tag Archives: childhood

Wild things

There’s this strange, displaced, unsettled feeling that can creep around you when you grow up with divorced parents. Places that you are supposed to call home don’t always feel like they are yours. You’re more likely to have people closely entangled in your life that haven’t been invested in you all along… people who didn’t know you when you were tiny and squishy and so clearly emanating the glow of endless possibilities. Even if they love you, they’re as likely to fear as understand you when you act crazy or angry or pained or restless. They are less likely to know how to muster compassion for the complicated business of acting like a child.

I’m not nostalgic for this childhood feeling, but I was nonetheless grateful to see it reflected on the screen of a movie theater on a Friday afternoon. I don’t remember seeing it there before. The dissonant parts of my childhood were probably pretty different from those of Maurice Sendak, Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, but the tone they were able to evoke was strikingly familiar to me, in a lovely yet menacing way.

We took Declan, and frankly, the stark joy, disappointment, warmth and anger in Max’s home life at the beginning of the film was far more agitating to him than the land of the clomping, reckless, emotionally conflicted wild things. He laughed the most hysterically and showed the most fear in the first 15 minutes. He was worried that Max wouldn’t return to his mother, so, to him, the ending was especially happy. I imagine that his response, and who he relates to the most in the film, is likely to change as he gets older.

There’s been a ton of discussion in every form of media about whether or not this movie is really for kids. I get tired of hearing people make that judgment, because honestly, I think it depends on the kid, what he or she likes and is able to process. (Not to mention the fact that many things that are made “for kids” by adults prove to be unwatchable, so I’m not sure why critics feel so obligated to bother with that flawed measuring stick. A lot of the greatest kids’ films I’ve seen appealed to adults as well.)

I can tell you, though, that Declan and I have had several great conversations about the movie and the intense emotions presented in it all weekend. We’ve talked about what’s scary to him and what’s scary to me. We’ve even talked about how and why a book can be so different from a movie, which opens a new and fabulous vista for our discussions about stories and art.

I’ll leave the nitpicky criticism about the filmmaking and its relative artfulness up to better-equipped people.

I simply loved this movie because of what it moved me to remember and the rich moments on new emotional terrain that it has given me to explore with my kid.


If you want a clinical blow-by-blow description of the potentially upsetting parts of almost any current movie including this one, Kids-In-Mind movie ratings are extremely helpful.

For more to chew on, visit Scott Mendelson of Huffington Post’s review, which I feel is quite on-point, and Stephanie Zacherek of Salon’s review, which isn’t.

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September 11

The first tower opened the year that I was born, near enough to Manhattan’s bridges and tunnels for my father to traverse them daily. I only went inside of the World Trade Center a handful of times, but I looked to the twin towers constantly. When they came into view from one of the New Jersey freeways, it meant an adventure was close at hand – always a day inside of one or more of the museums, maybe a stop at FAO Schwartz if I was lucky.

The first time I boarded a plane in Columbus, bound for the LaGuardia airport without an adult, it was my 10th birthday. From that point on, my little brother and I made that trip about three times a year to see our father. Divorce had moved us to Ohio with our mom. I always asked my dad if he could book our flight there at nighttime so that I could look for the city. The hammock of skyline bounded by the Empire State building and the towers helped me pick it out. In all of the awkwardness and emotion of a family split, there was comfort in its glimmer.

We got at least one Manhattan adventure on every trip that kept growing in scope — more Broadway, more restaurants, more celebrity-gazing. (Thanks for waving to me when I was 11, and looked at you wide-eyed in Central Park, William Hurt. It was sweet. And frankly, Sean Penn, you kind of scared me.) As a kid, I never imagined that I wouldn’t live there in my adult life.

Seven years ago this morning, I remember turning on the television, seeing both towers still standing, but burning, and wondering what strange apocalyptic movie VH1 was strangely airing that I had never heard of. I realized the same scene was on every channel. Then I had the body memory of standing on the top floor of Tower Two on a spring day so windy that the outdoor observation deck was closed. The building swayed, and over and over, my knees felt weak. I called my dad, thankfully home and safe in Connecticut, who was processing the scene himself, then getting off the phone to talk to my stepmother, who had just arrived in Grand Central station, safe, but stranded in the chaos of the island for the day as everything shut down, as we all watched in shock as the two towers crumbled.

We were safe, and after I waited for news of colleagues, as well as college and childhood friends for several days, I found out that they were safe too. But my dad and my stepmother talked of the empty cars left at the train stations that week, and the heartsickness that pervaded the entire region for months, the heartsickness that’s clearly still there as I’m watching the children of victims, teenagers who must have been so tenderly young when it happened, place flowers on memorials this morning.

Two months before that day, the company that I worked for decided to shut its Columbus office. I could come work in Los Angeles, they said. How about Atlanta? Then one man called and said “would you be interested in coming to New York?” And Dan and I talked about it seriously. Married less than a year, maybe we could move to Hoboken. Maybe I could move there for a few months alone while he tried to sell his business. But moving for a dot-com didn’t seem very wise, finding a place to live with our beloved dog in or around Manhattan didn’t seem feasible, and shutting down in my husband’s night club seemed like it would leave a cultural wound in Columbus. I imagined in an office 13-ish blocks away, and felt selfishly grateful to instead be at a distance of 477 well-worn miles.

But for all of the hours I spent weepy and confused and frightened and on the phone or watching the horrible-ness and heartbreak and tragedy of it all on television that day, there’s one memory that stands out in my mind most of all. My mother called me to remind me that it was my grandmother’s birthday. I called her close to evening.

“Well, whoever thought I wanted this for my birthday was a real shithead,” my grandmother told me. She wasn’t that salty-tongued most of the time, but you know, sometimes events call for it. “They should take it back.”

In two more days, she would be facing the two-year anniversary of my grandfather‘s death – a man she spent 61+ years head over heels in love with, parented five children with, laughed with and adored. He went into the hospital on the eve of her birthday, then clung dearly to life until he was more than a day clear of it, willfully fighting (if you ask any of his children or grandkids) to leave September 11th with no significance other than it being Grandma’s birthday. He died just a couple of hours after she kissed him goodnight and we all left our hospital vigil, in the early morning hours of September 13.

She had lived through the great depression and World War II. The state of the world shifting, friends and loved ones living in danger of violence — these were not the new experiences for her that they were for me. And September 13 was the day that she received the deepest scar on her heart.

We lost her in 2004, a year before my son was born. Her simple assessment of that day reminded me of how fragile we can be, how quickly scarred and how, reluctantly and painfully or just because we have to, we learn to adapt.

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Revolution – it’s easy peasy!

My solution to living under a government that doesn’t represent you, age 9 (click to enlarge & read):
While recently helping to clear out a room at my mother’s house, we unearthed a trove of my writing and artwork from grades 1 to 11 (I skipped 12). I’m having fun revisiting my pre-adult brain.

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Why Santa is real to me

When I was nine years old, my parents separated and my mother, brother and I moved from the east coast to Ohio. After living with cousins for one endless summer, we moved into a rented, red-brick house in a small suburban school district. A Doberman named Thor lived on one side of us, a family of five with a bespectacled patriarch who wore denim overalls and drank a six-pack of bottled Coca Cola daily on the other. Presumably, Thor didn’t live alone, but I don’t remember much about his owners.

I remember a lot of things about the year that we lived in that house. When mom signed the lease, our bedrooms were white, but by the time we moved in, mine had turned to yellow, my brother’s to blue, and my mother’s to a bright shade of lime green that she affectionately referred to as “pukey.” I remember lying in her window seat, listening to the radio news report that people had been trampled to death at a Who concert just down the interstate in Cincinnati.

Our pet German Shepherd was too big for our lives there, so she was passed on to a pair of farmers. I sobbed, standing in my roller skates as I watched the happy couple drive away with her in a boxy, powder blue pick-up truck after telling me how loved she would be in her new home, how thrilled she would be with all of that space to run.

I once got sick from eating too many mulberries from the neighbor’s yard. I met one of the only friends I still stay in touch with from childhood when her puppy, Satchmo, nearly knocked me off of the green, $12 bicycle that my mother bought me at a rummage sale in New Jersey a year before.

On Christmas eve that year – our first alone as a three person family unit – we were all winding down upstairs, getting ready for bed. My mom was in the bathtub and my brother and I were resisting sleep – bouncing around in the hallway together, too anxious to get to Christmas morning to rest.

Then we heard a rumpus of thuds and bells on the roof, followed by a man’s voice in the living room: “HO HO HO! Merry Christmas Turner family!” My mother scrambled for a robe and we all ran to the landing of the stairs together to look out the window. Santa ran up the driveway next to our house and waved at us cheerfully before disappearing into the dark. And, like any normal children raised on the threat of Santa, my brother and I sprinted to our beds and pulled the covers up over our heads, as though whatever gifts we had under the tree might disappear if we were caught awake. Mom acted concerned, even nervous. She went downstairs and found that the deadbolts were locked. She made a big deal of checking that the windows were locked too. Her only conclusion? “That must have been Santa Claus.”

In the years since, I’ve asked her several different times who that Santa really was. There were a number of uncles, neighbors, friends and co-workers who could have been candidates. Her answer usually goes something like “You tell me. If I was expecting someone to come into our house and play Santa, why would I have been naked in the tub? The whole thing scared the bejesus out of me.”

This year, like 1979, has been one of those upending, confusing periods. And this holiday season has been marked by stress, unreasonable expectations, health concerns and exhaustion. Yet somehow, I got the holiday cards out in time. I even made several of my gifts this year, and they are all wrapped and ready for the morning.

As I get ready to go to sleep tonight, I’m listening for sleigh bells.

Merry Christmas.

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Mrs. Ombach would be proud

When we were kids living in New Jersey, my brother and I had a babysitter named Mrs. Ombach, who came over to watch us frequently on summer afternoons. She would look over her half-spectacles at us as she knit long afghans with zig-zags or stripes. At the exact same time each visit, she would instruct us to read or lie down on blankets on the floor nearby while she took a half-hour nap on our rust-colored couch. Because of her insistence that we be raised with an appreciation for classical music, our dad went out and bought a bunch of Tchaikovsky music on eight-track tapes. I knew The Nutcracker and Swan Lake by ear long before I ever saw a ballet.

Her efforts to keep us “civilized” didn’t end with music. Whenever she was over, there would be tea, cookies and conversation at 3 o’clock. On the few occasions we went to her house , it was full of tea sets and needlepoint pillows and dark curtains and cuckoo clocks. No matter where we were with her, she would always police our language for “yeahs” and “uh-huhs.”

“You mean yes,” she would correct us.

Ombach’s notions didn’t entirely disappear or stick. I like classical music, but am by no means an expert. I’ll have some nice herbal tea in the evening now and then, but I’m mainly a coffee drinker, and I don’t drink it ritually much these days – just in large quantities in the morning. I’m particular about language in writing, but often too lazy about my speech, especially around the house. Lazy enough that my mom will still sometimes correct with me with an “Ombach would be very upset with you.”

But Declan almost always says “yes,” with a clear and precise sss sound. He’s even taken to saying “thank you” and “please” quite often, unless you’re telling him to do it, in which case, he stares straight through you as if to say “do I look like I need your pedestrian coaching?”

The other afternoon, he woke up from a nap in the car. I had the classical station playing. He rubbed his eyes and looked around sweetly for few minutes. Then he cupped his ear and said, “do you hear that Mozart? It’s on the radio.”

This blew my mind because it was, in fact, a Mozart piano sonata playing.

He will be two and a half in 11 days. What’s next? Daily requests for a cup of Earl Grey? It’s not out of the question, since he thinks Jean-Luc Picard is a family member. But if he starts asking for tea-time, I’ll be scanning the room for signs of Mrs. Ombach’s spirit.

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